An action research approach to studying apprenticeship in Spain

helmet-1636348_1920This is a new paper, written by Graham Attwell and Ana Garcia about the new apprenticeship system in Spain. The research was sponsored by the International Network on Innovative Apprenticeship (INAP) and the paper will be presented at the “Crossing Boundaries in VET: Social Dimension and Participation” conference in rostaock in August. We will provide a downlaodable version of the paper once we have overcome our fight with Word templates.

Abstract: This paper, explores the outcomes of a short action research project, undertaken in Valencia Spain in 2016, into the introduction of the new apprenticeship qualification, FP Dual. The hypothesis underpinning the work was that the development of apprenticeship programmes in Spain needs to build on existing cultural and organisational norms and requires an in-depth understanding of critical factors in the perception of apprenticeship by different actors. The research was undertaken through a series of over 30 in depth interviews with different actors. The paper explains the background and methodology, before outlining the major issues that emerged from the research. The conclusion suggests the need to address cultural and educational issues that the introduction of a Dual System system raises, including the relations between companies and education institutions, the prestige of vocational qualifications, the training of teachers and trainers and issues of pedagogy and curriculum.

Keywords: Action research, Semi structured interview, Apprenticeship, Policy, Spain

1         Introduction

The Spanish economy is still struggling from the impact of the ‘crisis’, with persistently high levels of youth unemployment and low skills levels. Unemployment is especially high for those leaving school early with no qualifications and for recent graduates (Esenciales Fundación BBVA, 2016).

A series of reports have suggested that moving beyond the school based, initial vocational training system to adopt a dual system based, apprenticeship model offers benefits to the economy, to companies and to individuals (Wolter and Mühlemann, 2015).

However, other research points to the difficulties in transferring models developed in one culture – such as the German Dual apprenticeship system – to other cultures such as Spain (Pilz, 2016). These include the weakness of trade unions at a company level, educational polarisation between vocational and higher education, resistance at company level, resistance by families and young people, variation in co-ordination between actors from region to region, complex interactions between national and regional levels, the government, social partners and employment organisations and, of course, the ongoing economic crisis (Cedefop, (2015).

The Spanish government has established an experimental apprenticeship framework, FP Dual, with pilots running in parallel to existing VET schemes (Refer Net Spain, 2014). The implementation of the programmes varies greatly in different Autonomous Communities, based on different cultures, different economies and different organisational and governance forms.

Clara Bassols and Guillem Salvans (2016) say that the Spanish FP Dual system is underdeveloped and needs to be refined and improved to ensure that it is genuinely capable of providing young people with the necessary professional skills and thus employability. Comparing developments in Spain with the German Dual apprenticeship training system, they say that while the two Dual VET systems will never be the same, comparison with Germany reveals that the Spanish system lacks some of the defining strengths of the German system. That the Spanish Dual VET system is so new is viewed as “an opportunity to make changes before it becomes too entrenched.”

Our hypothesis is that the development of apprenticeship programmes in Spain needs to build on existing cultural and organisational norms. This requires an in-depth understanding of critical factors in the perception of apprenticeship by different actors and how these affect the development and implementation of apprenticeship programmes.

The ‘Understanding cultural barriers and opportunities for developing new apprenticeship programmes’ project, sponsored by INEP, has undertaken a four-month research study based in Valencia, to explore the cultural and organisational norms and the barriers and opportunities these afford to introducing apprenticeship. In this paper, we explain the methodology behind the research and the main findings.

2 Research Methodology

A key aim for the project was understanding the introduction of an education innovation – apprenticeship – within a local setting and with a wide range of different actors.

The project adopted an action research approach. Our aim was to develop an understanding of the underlying causes of issues relating to the introduction of educational practice in order, in the longer term, to arrive at consensus by different social partners on how practice can be improved. Our focus has been on qualitative research with different actors who may have an important voice in this area, the organisation of apprenticeship, the role of different organisations and the cultural factors affecting the provision and reform of vocational education and training in the Valencia Community and in Spain.

Elden (1983) has introduced the notion of ‘local theory’. To understand the challenges of each specific workplace, he said, as well as how to attack them, there is a need to understand this specific workplace. In a similar way, we would suggest the need to understand the specific ideas and activities and ‘theories’ of different actors involved at a local level in apprenticeship. Here theory might be understood as the specific pedagogic and learning approach of apprenticeship in bringing together vocational training within schools with alternance periods spent within companies. One objective for our research was how such theory is linked to practice in introducing and supporting such programmes.

In the first stage of the project, we identified the major actors involved in the development and introduction of the apprenticeship programmes in Valencia. These included:

  1. Vocational Training Schools (directors, teachers, tutors)
  2. Policy Makers (regional government and political parties and organisations)
  3. Students and trainees
  4. Parents and carers
  5. Companies especially Small and Medium Enterprises.

The project adopted the idea of purposive sampling for selecting respondents for interviews (Patton, 1990). Interviews were conducted face-to-face using semi structured questionnaires. Overall, thirty interviews were conducted, recorded and transcribed.

3. Findings

In line with our approach to the project, we present here detailed findings from te different actors involved in developing apprenticeship at a local city level.

The role of companies in the FP Dual

Given the central nature of companies to the FP Dual system, it is not surprising that the relationship between companies and vocational schools, as well as the local administration was a major issue raised by all the different social partners. Although most company representatives interviewed were positive about the FP Dual and vocational schools welcomed the partnership with companies, it is proving time consuming to develop a culture and processes to support a dual system and the number of apprenticeship programmes and the number enrolled in Valencia remains limited. There are particular difficulties involving SMEs, who are reluctant to contribute to the cost of apprenticeship and lack skilled trainers.

The role of the school centres

Despite the support of some large and important companies, the adoption of FP Dual is being driven by the School Centres. In such a situation, it is possible that the large integrated centres are in a better position to lead such development, although this is not to downplay the contribution and effort of the smaller centres. School leadership is a critical factor, as is the commitment and contribution of teachers in the vocational schools. Directors and teachers receive no remuneration to working with companies to develop new programmes.

Administration and Contracts

The bureaucracy associated with the establishment of new apprenticeship programmes, both for the schools and for the companies, is troubling.

Some Autonomous Communities have legislation on contracts and remuneration for apprentices with differing rulings. In Valencia, it depends on the individual programmes negotiated between the company and the vocational schools. Quite obviously, this is problematic in that some apprentices are being paid for their work at the company while others are not. Furthermore, some apprentices, who are not receiving remuneration from the company, may be incurring some considerable expenses for travel.

Curriculum Design

At present, the FP Dual programmes last two years in contrast to the normal three-year length of apprenticeships in the German Dual system. There is concern that a some subjects, the curriculum is too heavy for such a time and there is a need for rebalancing drawn between what is learnt through the school and through in-company training.

Sector organisations

One key factor in implementing the FP Dual, is the strength and support of sector organisations which varies between different sectors. The initial programmes are being implemented where there is good communication and support between sectors, vocational schools and industries.

Flexibility and collaboration

The flexibility for the Autonomous Communities to implement apprenticeship schemes allows programmes to be adapted and planned according to the needs of local economies and societies. This may be a problem in terms of transferability of different courses and in transparency of what apprenticeship programmes stand for. There is an important balance to be achieved between the design of programmes to cater for the needs of individual companies and more standardised curricula which meet the needs of students in their education.

Careers guidance and the role of parents

There is only limited public awareness of the FP Dual and the aims and the organisation of apprenticeship. This issue is particularly salient given the high prestige placed on academic courses in Spain and particularly university programmes within the wider Spanish society. The weakness of education and guidance networks and services within Valencia is a major issue if young people, and especially higher achieving young people are to be recruited on FP Dual programmes and if companies and SMEs are to understand the value of apprenticeship.

Initial training and Professional development

There is a lack of a dedicated and well organised and resourced programme of professional development for vocational teachers and for trainers in companies, which is seen as a pre-condition for the future success of apprenticeship in Valencia. Initial training for vocational school teachers is overly focused on the subject with too little attention to pedagogic approaches to teaching and learning.

Sharing resources and good practices

The vocational schools appear to have well developed unofficial networks. But more formal networks are needed which could generalise discourses over strategies and approaches to apprenticeship and provide a forum for knowledge development and exchange.

There is a general concern that vocational education lack prestige, but more importantly the vocational centres often lack sufficient resources to not only maintain present programmes but to develop apprenticeship. This is linked to their understanding of the need for recognised quality in teaching and learning if apprenticeship is to succeed. Many teachers said they lack resources and there is poor access to technology.

International collaboration

European projects and programmes, including the development of new curricula and qualifications, new pedagogic approaches, the use of new technologies and the exchange of students and teachers are extremely valuable for vocational schools to develop and exchange knowledge and experience about apprenticeship.

Regional and city wide collaboration

Vocational schools appear to be approaching companies individually. There could be gains through developing more formal and extended networks between schools and companies, either on a regional or a sector basis. To an extent this role is being undertaken at a national basis by the Alliance for Apprenticeship. The establishment of the Alliance at the level of the Autonomous Communities could be an important step in promoting the FP Dual.

FP Dual and the local economy

Many of those interviewed saw apprenticeship as a way of proving the skills which the local economy would need in the future, particularly in view of the potential flexibility in designing new programmes together with employers. However, they also recognised the challenges in developing such a responsive system.


The new apprenticeship programmes are experimental, and many of the issues arising are not unique to Spain. Indeed, many of these issues have been raised in research into the long established German Dual System. However, the lack of qualitative evaluation of the FP Dual programmes, especially scientifically undertaken and published case studies, is a barrier to understanding what is working, what is not and how to improve the quality of the programmes.

4. Conclusions

The findings from this research are focused on the context of educational change and introducing apprenticeship in one community, Valencia in Spain. This raises the question of how generalizable they are to other regions and other countries. We would suggest the findings show the limitation in attempting to transfer models of vocational education and training from one country to another. Inevitably, FP Dual reflects the governmental, cultural, pedagogic and curricula history and practices of Valencia, as well as the particular context of the ongoing economic crisis. That does not mean that developing an apprenticeship system in Valencia is either undesirable or impossible. But it does mean going beyond lauding the strengths of dual system approaches to education and training and whilst recognising that a Dual system in Spain will always be different to Germany, addressing some of the cultural and educational issues that such a system raises. These include the relations between companies and education institutions, the prestige of vocational qualifications, the training of teachers and trainers and issues of pedagogy and curriculum. Announcing a new systemic innovation alone is not enough: unless these key issues can be addressed apprenticeship will not succeed in Valencia or in Spain.


Bassols, C. and Salvans, G.  (2016). High Quality Vocational training in Spain: the Alliance for Dual Vocational training, Bertelsmann Foundation, Madrid

Cedefop (2015). Governance and financing of apprenticeship, Cedefop, Thessaloniki

Elden, M. (1983). Democratization and participative research in developing local theory. Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 4(1), 21–34.

Esenciales Fundación BBVA (2016). La formación ha avanzado durante la crisis, peroel abandono escolar, los desajustes en competencias y el paro limitan el aprovechamiento del esfuerzo educativo, Ivie N.º 03/2016

Patton, M. (1990) Qualitative evaluation and research methods. (pp. 169-186), Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, CA

Pilz, M. (2016). Training Patterns of German Companies in India, China, Japan and the USA:What Really Works?, International Journal for Research in Vocational Education and Training (IJRVET), Vol. 3, Issue 2, August 2016, pp. 66-87

Refer Net Spain (2014) Apprenticeship-type schemes and structured work-based learning programmes: Spain, CEDEFOP

Wolter, C. and Mühlemann, S. (2015) Apprenticeship training in Spain – a cost effective model for firms?, Bertelsmann Stiftung, Guetersloh


Supporting start up businesses





One of the best things about Twitter is the ability to follow links to all kinds of things you probably would never have been to without it. And so I find in my notes somewhere the link to an article in Quartz – an online magazine (?) about which I know nothing. The link is to a loosely researched article about entrepreneurism – making the point that there is not much thing as an entrepreneurial gene but rather propensity to take risk and to set up new businesses is more like to be related to access to money – in other words to class.

The article, attributed to REUTERS/Allison Joyce, quotes University of California, Berkeley economists Ross Levine and Rona Rubinstein who “analyzed the shared traits of entrepreneurs in a 2013 paper, and found that most were white, male, and highly educated. “If one does not have money in the form of a family with money, the chances of becoming an entrepreneur drop quite a bit,” Levine tells Quartz.”

Entrepreneurship is all the trend in Europe at the moment, especially in the recession and austerity hit southern countries, where setting up a business is seen as one of the few ways of getting a job. However the rhetoric seems to overplay the potential of technology (everyone can be the next Steve Jobs!), whilst ignoring sectors of the economy such as tourism which probably represent better opportunities within the existing labour market.

At the same time programmes such as the EU Youth Guarantee fund are being used to set up support agencies for young people wishing to set ups their own business and we are seeing the increasing emergence of co-working spaces for new enterprises. But anecdotal evidence – and some reports although I cannot find them at the moment – suggest that many of these businesses are struggling to survive beyond the first one or two years. In austerity Europe bank capital remains hard to come by and most young people do not have access to their own funds to consolidate and explained their business. Although initiatives like the EU SME programme are very welcome, access to such funding is not simple and anyway the amount of grants on offer are simply insufficient. As European politicians slowly wake up to the disaster austerity policies have wrought, then establishing better support for new businesses should be a priority, tied to easy access to small business start up capital.

Thinking about Entrepreneurship

For some time I have been interested in Entrepreneurship. For one thing I resented the way the Thatcher and Blair acolytes had stolen the word. Working class people have also been entrepreneurial, setting up small businesses or providing services. Yet to listen to the new reasoning, entrepreneurs were the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the world, millionaires and directors of multi million pound listed software companies. Just as Puritanism equated being wealthy with being one of the saved, so neo-liberalism equated being rich with being an entrepreneur. It was something the poor should aspire to and they should study in awe rich people as role models.
Since the onset of the recession, or the crisis as it is universally called in southern Europe, some of the gloss has faded at least from the bankers.
Yet with unemployment and especially youth unemployment remaining at very high levels and with employment increasingly precarious, there seems, at least in Spain where i am living, to be ever more emphasis on entrepreneurship as the hope for the future of employment. Over the last week we have attended two conferences and workshops on innovation and entrepreneurship. On the one hand the increasing support for people trying to set up their own businesses is to be welcomed, even if coordination between the many different agencies involved seems somewhat lacking.
Yet the line of argument seems somewhat under developed. The answer for the ailing labour market is innovation Innovation is connected to entrepreneurship. The great future for innovation is technology in disrupting markets. Universities need to develop closer links to industry. We need more training in technology. Web 2.0 and social media are critical to marketing innovations. Look to Apple, look to Uber, look to AirB. Don’t forget the example of The Great Steve Jobs as a role model. And so on.
As Jim Groom and Brian Lamb said in 2014 “Today, innovation is increasingly conflated with hype, disruption for disruption’s sake, and outsourcing laced with a dose of austerity-driven downsizing.” And I fear the increasing popularity and support for entrepreneurship is also becoming conflated with hype.
I am curious about the overwhelming emphasis on technology, software and hardware. Is there any city on Spain – or for that matter anywhere else – which is not trying to develop the next Silicon Valley? Yet looking at the figures, the construction and care industries remain two of the largest industries in Europe by numbers employed. Yet they are rarely, if ever, linked to entrepreneurship. Services are continuing to grow in employment, although this covers a wide range of occupations. The number of people who make real money out of releasing Apps to the various app markets is extremely limited.
I think we need more nuanced thinking around a  number of issues. Clearly labour markets are closely tied to employment. Whatever skills we teach young people they will not gain employment if there are no jobs. Self employment and starting up a business are increasingly attractive routes for young people (especially as there is little alternative). However businesses vary greatly in size and type. Motivations and ambition can be very different. Some people are just looking for a weekend or hobby business, others may be wanting to build on skills. Disruption is probably a minor source of employment or indeed driver of entrepreneurship.
Whilst there is progress in providing support or young people in setting up their own business, advice and help is seldom geared towards them. Being told to go away and produce a profit and loss projection in a spreadsheet is only a small part of the story. And probably the major lack at the moment is help to develop businesses towards sustainability. Growth is not the only measure of sustainability. Bank capital is still in scarce supply and whilst welcome crowd funding has its downsides. And the schooling system in Spain, based on remembering facts, hardly helps young people in striking out on their own.
Above all policy and practice need to link up. Having said that there is a big contradiction between policies of austerity and policies of supporting entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship requires public support as well as private funding. Enough for today…more to come.

Only 15 per cent of UK companies offer apprenticeship training

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has published an interesting survey of Employer Perspectives Survey, the second in a series of biennial, large scale surveys of employers designed to provide a UK-wide picture of employer perspectives of, and experiences in, the recruitment and skills landscape. The draw attention to the following key findings:

  • There are perhaps unexpected signs of business confidence amongst private sector employers: almost half of establishments expect their business to grow in the coming year, and there is also greater confidence amongst younger businesses than older ones.
  • Employers typically use a range of channels when they are looking to recruit. They tend to make most use of private recruitment services which they do not have to pay for. Indeed, the single most common channel employers used to find candidates to fill vacant posts was ‘word of mouth’.
  • Candidates’ qualifications play a role in most employers’ recruitment processes and decisions, and a significant role for more than two in five. Academic qualifications continue to be better regarded than vocational qualifications.
  • Whilst the majority of employers train and plan their training there is a significant core of employers that do not.
  • Employers are more likely to provide training internally than to access the external workforce development market, although overall around half of employers do use external channels to deliver workforce development for their staff.
  • Employers most commonly look to commercial providers (private sector training firms or third sector providers) when they are looking outside of their own organisation to deliver training.
  • Overall take up of vocational qualifications remains at a steady level. However, there has been qualitative improvement in satisfaction with vocational qualifications amongst those employers that offer them.
  • Only a minority of all UK establishments offer apprenticeships (15 per cent). However, almost a quarter of those who don’t currently offer Apprenticeships expect to in the coming 2-3 years.
  • Employers are open to the recruitment of, or providing opportunities to, young people. Just over a quarter of all establishments, or 62% of those who had recruited, had recruited a young person in the previous 12 months. A quarter of all establishments had offered a placement to schools, college or university students.

A number of these findings appear significant. Employers still often rely on word of mouth – i.e. informal networks – when recruiting. And if qualifications play significant role for more than two in five decisions about who to recruit this means for three out of five they do not! The report also notes that

Academic qualifications continue to be better regarded than vocational qualifications and that when employers are looking to recruit new employees to key occupational roles, they usually anticipate that they will need to develop these new recruits’ skills, at least to some extent. UKCES report that employers are more likely to provide training internally (63 per cent did so) than to access the external workforce development market. Furthermore there is a wide sectoral variation in the provision of external training, ranging from 86 per cent in the Non-Market Services to 49 per cent in Trade, Accommodation and Transport sector.

Prospects for young people are problematic. “Amongst those active in the labour market in the last 12 months, the recruitment of young people was highest in the Trade, Accommodation and Transport sector at 71 per cent falling to between 55 and 59 per cent in all other sectors. This reflects the roles they are recruited to: 21 per cent of all employers recruiting young people reported that their most recent recruit was to a Sales and Customer Service role and 20 per cent to an Elementary occupation.”

Just 15 per cent of enterprises were offering apprenticeships. And of those that were: “Approaching a third of those who offer formal Apprenticeships (31 per cent) offer Apprenticeships that take 12 months or less to complete, and five per cent offer Apprenticeships with a duration of six months or less.”

All in all the report reveals some pretty big challenges ahead if the UK is going to develop an advanced education and training system, especially where employers are concerned.


Developing Work based Personal Learning Environments in Small and Medium Enterprises

This is a work in progress. It is the first draft of a paper by Ludger Deitmer and myself for the Personal Learning Environments Conference to be held in Aveiro next week. We are looking at how we might develop work based PLEs drawing on the work on the forthcoming Learning Layers project. there is a downloadable version (in word format) at the bottom of the post. Your feedback is very welcome.


Developing Work based Personal Learning Environments in Small and Medium Enterprises

Graham Attwell, Pontydusgu, Wales

Ludger Deitmer, ITB, University of Bremen, Germany


This paper is based on a literature review and interviews with employers and trainers in the north German building and construction trades. The work was undertaken in preparing a project application, Learning Layers, for the European Research Programme.

The paper looks at the development of High Performance Work Systems to support innovation in Small and Medium enterprises. It discusses the potential of Personal Learning environments to support informal and work based learning.

The paper goes on to look at the characteristics and organisation of the building and construction industry and at education and training in the sector.

It outlines an approach to developing the use of PLEs based on a series of layers to support informal interactions with people across enterprises, supports creation, maturing and interaction with learning materials as boundary objects and a layer that situates and scaffolds learning support into the physical workplace and captures people’s interactions with physical artefacts inviting them to share their experiences.


Building, construction, Small and Medium Enterprises, informal interactions, boundary objects, workplace learning, scaffolding

1. Introduction

Research and development in Personal Learning Environments has made considerable progress in recent years. Yet although often acknowledging the importance of informal learning, such research continues to be largely focused on formal educational institutions from either higher or vocational training and education. Far less attention has been paid to work based and work integrated learning and still less to the particular context of learning at work in Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) (Gustavsen, Nyhan, Ennals, 2007). Yet it could be argued that it is in just these contexts, where work can provide a rich learning environment and where there is growing need for continuing professional development to meet demands from new technology, new materials and changing work processes, that PLEs could have the greatest impact. A work environment in which the workers plan, control and validate their work tasks can both competitive and productive (Asheim 2007). It also requires that workers are able to make incremental and continuous improvements to work processes to develop better products and services. This in turn requires continuous learning. In contrast to predominant forms of continuous training based on activities outside the workplace, and in response to the perceived lack of take up of Technology Enhanced Learning in SMEs, we propose a dual approach, based on informal learning and the development of network and mobile technologies including Personal Learning Environments. This paper will describe an approach being developed for learning in SMEs, specifically in the building and construction industry in north Germany.

Our approach is based on the development of high performance work systems in industrial clusters of SMEs. In this context, individual learning leads to incremental innovation within enterprises. Personal Learning environments serve both to support individual learning and organisational learning through a bringing together of learning processes (and technology) and knowledge management within both individual SMEs and dispersed networks of SMEs in industrial clusters. Our approach is also based on linking informal and work based learning and practice and formal training.

The paper is based on literature research and on interviews with employers and trainers in the building and construction sector. This work was undertaken in preparation for a project called Learning Layers, to be undertaken through the European Commission Seventh Framework for Research and due to commence in November 2012.

In the paper we look at the ideas behind high performance work systems and industrial clusters before examining the nature and context of the building and construction industries and particularly of SMEs within the industrial cluster.

We develop a scenario of how PLEs might be used for learning and suggest necessary developments to be undertaken to facilitate the adaptation of such technologies for learning.

2. The challenge for knowledge and skills for the workforce

Many industries are undergoing a period of rapid change with the introduction of new technologies, new production concepts, work processes and materials. This is resulting in new quality requirements for products and processes which lead to an emergence of new skill requirements at all levels of personnel, including management, workers, technicians, apprentices and trainees. These changes can be described as a paradigmatic shift from traditional forms of production towards leaner, agile and flexible production based on high performance work systems (Toner 2011).

Leaner business organisations have less hierarchical layers and develop ‘close to production intelligence’ in order to be more flexible to change and to customer demands. The qualifications required of workers within such production or service environment are broader than in traditional workplaces reflecting a shift from functional skills towards multiskilling. Skilled workers require practical and theoretical knowledge in order to act competently in the planning, preparation, production and control of work and to coordinate with other departments in or outside the company.

Information and communication technologies – including both technologies for learning and for knowledge management – are required to allow more decentralised control to support just-in-time and flexible production and services. A key to flexibility and high productivity lies in the qualification profiles of the workforce and in the development of worker-oriented production technologies, which allow more flexible control in the production process.

The following table illustrates the change in innovation management within such companies and the consequences for the skilling of workers, technicians and the apprentices. This change in production philosophy can be described as a move from a top-down management approach towards a participative management approach (Rauner, Rasmussen & Corbett, 1988; Deitmer & Attwell, 2000) which requires a commitment to innovation at all level of the workforce, not just at the management level.

Innovation management by: control Innovation management by: participation Organisational consequences for the skilling of emerging workers
function-oriented work organisation business-oriented work organisations Learn to work within the flow of the business process and at the work place through experience-based learning
steep hierarchy flat hierarchy Self regulated working and learning based on methods like plan, do, act and control cycle
low level and fragmented qualifications shaping competences Be able to shape workplaces and make suggestions for improvement of services and production processes
executed work commitment, responsibility Developing vocational identity and occupational commitment
external quality control quality consciousness professional level of training based on key work and learning tasks

Table 1 Innovation management and the skilling of workers (Deitmer 2011)

3. Learning by doing and drivers for incremental innovation

Toner (2011) points out that a ‘learning by doing’ strategy in an innovative work environment can lead to gradual improvement in the efficiency of the production processes and product design and performance (Toner 2011). Such improvements are based on high performance skills by workers. High Performance Work Structures are based on the practical knowledge of the workers underpinned by theoretical knowledge (Nyhan 2002, Rauner). Practical knowledge is generated in the context of application and is shaped by criteria such as practicability, functionality and the failure free use of technologies.

In high performance work systems (Toner 2011, Arundel 2006, Gospel 2007, Teece 2000)  the following qualification profiles are emerging:

  • High levels of communication, numeracy, problem solving and team working are required as managerial authority is delegated to the shop floor including the design of the workplace, maintenance and continuous product and process innovation
  • Broad Job Classifications which allow functional flexibility by limiting occupational demarcations and requiring workers to be competent across a broader range of tasks than is conventionally expected which in turn requires broad based training.
  • Organisational learning around new patterns of activities is based on capturing the learning and work experiences of individual workers and teams of workers
  • Flat management hierarchies provide more responsibility for individual workers and work teams in problem solving and in organising work processes

High Performance Work Systems require a commitment to innovation at all levels of the workforce; this process is more inclusive, democratic and incremental rather than elitist, imposed and radical. The empowerment of the work force to make proposals for changes and improvement is key. However the adoption of such practices requires continuous learning linked to knowledge management and systems and technologies to support such processes.

Thus the development of work based PLEs could be linked to wider processes of innovation within SMEs.

4. Learning and innovation in Regional Clusters

Many SMEs organise themselves in clusters or networks in order to collaborate, to share knowledge and skill, or even to exchange staff. The network dimension is particularly important as regional clusters have been understood as an instrument of scaling learning in heavily SME dependent sectors. This is reflected by large EU projects like European Cluster Excellence Initiative. It is much easier to economically justify the creation of learning materials which can be reused in an entire cluster and hence by many organisations than just for a few individuals. The challenge from a network point of view would be to identify such high potential learning materials and to find ways to distribute them efficiently within the network. The current focus of cluster initiatives is almost exclusively on scaling up formal training by organising training across network members. While a Communities of Practice perspective has been adopted in some cases to address informal learning processes, these are usually not effectively supported through information technologies (Prestkvern & Bardalen 2008).

Effects resulting from relationships in networks of small organisations for learning processes have received little attention in Technology Enhanced Learning research to date, despite these networks having been identified as a potential way of fostering favourable learning conditions (Deitmer & Attwell 2000). However, we can build here on work in diverse fields looking into these network effects. Seminal work by Granovetter (1973) has made distinction between strong and weak ties in such networks. Further studies investigated the network effects on experience sharing (Baum, 1998), on social networks (Cross, 2001), of trust on knowledge transfer (Levin, 2004) on communication for innovation (Müller-Prothmann, 2006), on communication with new media (Haythornthwaite, 2002) and more recently on networked learning (Ryberg, 2008). However, the effects on informal learning and on the creation of shared knowledge artefacts are still open issues.

The development and implementation of Personal Learning Environments within the context of regional clusters could support this form of networked informal learning.

However there remain barriers. Research suggests (Perifanou, forthcoming) that SMEs may still be concerned about a perceived loss of competitiveness through openness in collaborative learning contexts. Similarly some SMEs regard learning materials, especially those generated within their organisation, as a potential source of future revenue.

5. Learning approaches and technological support for learning at the workplace

Research suggests that in SMEs much learning takes place in the workplace and through work processes, is multi episodic, is often informal, is problem based and takes place on a just in time basis (Hart, 2011). Rather than a reliance on formal or designated trainers, much training and learning involves the passing on of skills and knowledge from skilled workers (Attwell and Baumgartl, 2009). Dehnbostel (2009) says that learning in the workplace is the oldest and most common method of vocational qualification, developing experience, motivation and social relations. Learning at work is self-directed, process-oriented form of lifelong learning that essentially contributes to personality development and professionalism, and promotes innovation and employability (Streumer, 2001; Dehnbostel, 2009; Fischer, Boreham and Nyhan, 2004).

A survey undertaken in Germany found work based learning comprised of 43% of training and learning undertaken by enterprises (Büchter et al., 2000).

Thus work based learning is seen as a potential approach to developing continuing learning for the broader competences and work process knowledge required for high performance workplaces. Rather than a reliance on formal or designated trainers, much training and learning involves the passing on of skills and knowledge from skilled workers (Attwell and Baumgartl, 2009). In other words, learning is highly individualized and heavily integrated with contextual work practices. While this form of delivery (learning from individual experience) is highly effective for the individual and has been shown to be intrinsically motivating by both the need to solve problems and by personal interest (Attwell, 2007; Hague & Lohan, 2009), it does not scale well: if individual experiences are not further taken up in systematic organisational learning practices, learning remains costly, fragmented and unsystematic.  It has been suggested that Technology Enhanced Learning can overcome this problem of scaling and of systematisation of informal and work based learning. However its potential has not yet been fully realized and especially in many Small and Medium Enterprises (SME), the take-up has not been effective. A critical review of the way information technologies are being used for workplace learning (Kraiger, 2008) concludes that most solutions are targeted towards a learning model based on the idea of formal, direct instruction. TEL initiatives tend to be based upon a traditional business training model with modules, lectures and seminars transferred from face to face interactions to onscreen interactions, retaining the standard tutor/student relationship and the reliance on formal and to some extent standardized course material and curricula.

The development of work based Personal Learning Environments have the potential to link informal learning in the workplace to more formal training. Furthermore they could promote the sharing of experience and work practices and promote collaborative learning within networks of SMEs. Research suggests that in SMEs much learning not only takes place in the workplace and through work processes, but is multi episodic, is often informal, is problem based and takes place on a just in time basis (Hart, 2011).

Learning in the workplace draws on a multitude of existing ‘resources’ – many of which have not been designed for learning purposes (like colleagues, Internet, Intranet) (Kooken et al. 2007). Research on whether these experiential forms of learning lead to effective learning outcomes are mixed. Purely self-directed learning has been shown to be less effective than most guided learning in many laboratory studies and in educational settings (Mayer, 2004). On the other hand, explorative learning in work settings has often been reported to be beneficial, e.g. for allowing construction of mental models and improving transfer (Keith & Frese, 2005). Some form of guidance may be necessary to direct learners’ attention to relevant materials and support their learning (Bell & Kozlowsky, 2008). This is especially true for learners at initial levels (Lindstaedt et al. 2010).

One approach to this issue is to provide scaffolding. The use of scaffolding as a metaphor refers to the provision of temporary support for the completion of a task that a learner might otherwise be unable to achieve. Scaffolding extends the socio-cultural approach of Vygotsky. Vygotsky (1978) suggested that support for learning was provided by a Significantly Knowledgeable Other, who might be a teachers or trainer, but could also be a colleague or peer. Attwell has suggested that such support can be embodied in technology. However, scaffolding knowledge in different domains and in particular in domains that involve a relationship between knowledge and practice requires a closer approach to learning episodes and to the use of physical objects for learning within the workplace. Thus rather than seeing a PLE as a containers or connections- or even as a pedagogical approach – PLEs might be seen instead as a flexible process to scaffold individual and community  learning and knowledge development.

6. Developing Work based PLEs in the Building and Construction Sector

In the first section of this paper we have looked at the idea of high performance work systems and innovation and knowledge development within industrial clusters. We have suggested that Personal Learning Environments could facilitate and develop these processes through building on informal learning in the workplace.  We have recognized the necessity for support for learning through networked scaffolding. In the second section, we will examine in more depth the north German Building and Construction sector, developing a scenario of how PLEs might work in such a context. We will; go on to suggest further research which is needed to refine our idea of how to develop work based PLEs.

7. The Building and Construction Cluster

The building and construction trades are undergoing a period of rapid change with the introduction of green building techniques and materials and new work processes and standards. The EU directive makes near zero energy building mandatory by 2021 (European Parliament 2009). This is resulting in the development of new skill requirements for work on building sites.

The sector is characterized by a small number of large companies and a large number of SMEs in both general building and construction and in specialized craft trades. Building and construction projects require more interactive collaboration within as well as between different craft trade companies within the cluster.

Training for skilled workers has traditionally been provided through apprenticeships in most countries. Continuing training is becoming increasingly important for dealing with technological change. However further training programmes are often conducted outside the workplace with limited connection to real work projects and processes and there is often little transfer of learning. Costs are a constraint for building enterprises, especially SMEs, in providing off the job courses (Schulte and Spöttl, 2009). Although In Germany, as in some other European countries, there is a training levy for sharing training costs between enterprises, there remains a wider issues of how to share knowledge both within enterprises and between workers in different workplaces. Other issues include how to provide just in time training to meet new needs and how to link formal training with informal learning and work based practice in the different craft trades.

The developments of new processes and materials provide substantial challenges for the construction industry. Traditional educational and training methods are proving to be insufficient to meet the challenge of the rapid emergence of new skill and quality requirements (for example those related to green building techniques or building materials). This requires much faster involvement and action at three levels – individual, organisational and cluster. The increased rate of technical change introduces greater uncertainty for firms, which, in turn, demands an increased capacity for problem solving skills (Toner 2011). Despite the recession there is a shortage of skilled craftspeople in some European regions and a problem in recruiting young people for apprenticeships in higher skilled craft work in the building and construction industry.

In the present period of economic uncertainty, it is worth noting that the total turnover of the construction industry in 2010 (EU27) was 1186 billion Euros forming 9,7% of the GDP in 2010 (EU27). The construction industry is the biggest industrial employer in Europe with 13,9 million operatives making up 6,6% of the total employment in EU27 and if programmes were to be launched to stimulate economies, construction has a high multiplier effect.

8. Mobile technologies and work based Personal Learning Environments

Although the European Commission has pointed to the lack of take up of e-Learning in various sectors, this is probably too simplistic an analysis. It may be more that in all sectors, e-learning has been used to a greater or lesser extent for learning in particular occupations and for particular tasks. For example e-Learning is used for those professions which most use computers e.g. in the building and construction industries, by architects and engineers. Equally e-learning is used for generic competences such as learning foreign languages or accounting.

In the past few years, emerging technologies (such as mobile devices or social networks) have rapidly spread into all areas of our life. However, while employees in SMEs increasingly use these technologies for private purposes as well as for informal learning, enterprises have not in general recognized the personal use of technologies as effectively supporting informal learning. As a consequence, the use of these emerging technologies has not been systematically taken up as a sustainable learning strategy that is integrated with other forms of learning at the workplace.

9. An approach to developing PLEs in the work place

We are researching methods and technologies to scale-up informal learning support for PLEs so that it is cost-effective and sustainable, offers contextualised and meaningful support in the virtual and physical context of work practices. through the Learning Layers project we aim to:

  • Ensure that peer production is unlocked: Barriers to participation need to be lowered, the massive reuse of existing materials has to be realized, and experiences people make in physical contexts needs to be included.
  • Ensure individuals receive scaffolds to deal with the growing abundance: We need to research concepts of networked scaffolding and research the effectiveness of scaffolds across different contexts.
  • Ensure shared meaning of work practices at individual, organisational and inter-organisational levels emerges from these interactions: We need to lower barriers for participation, allow emergence as a social negotiation process and knowledge maturing across institutional boundaries, and research the role of physical artefacts and context in this process.

10. The Learning Layers concept: an approach to support informal learning through PLEs

Work based Personal Learning Environments will be based on a series of Learning Layers. In building heavily on existing research on situated and contextualised learning, Learning Layers provide a meaningful learning context when people interact with people, digital and physical artefacts for their informal learning. Learning Layers provide a shared conceptual foundation independent of the personal tools people use for learning. Learning Layers can flexibly be switched on and off, to allow modular and flexible views of the abundance of existing resources in learning interactions. These views both restrict the perspective of the abundant opportunities and augment the learning experience through scaffolds for meaningful learning both in and across digital and physical interaction.

At the same time, Learning Layers invite processes of social contribution for peer production through providing views of existing digital resources and making it easy to capture and share physical interactions. Peer production then becomes a way to establish new and complementary views of existing materials and interactions.

Three Interaction Layers focus on interaction with three types of entities involved in informal learning:

  • a layer that invites informal interactions with people across enterprises in the cluster, scaffolds workplace learning by drawing on networks of learners and keeps these interactions persistent so that they can be used in other contexts by other persons,
  • a layer that supports creation, maturing and interaction with learning materials as boundary objects and guides this processes by tracking the quality and suitability of these materials for learning, and
  • a layer that situates and scaffolds learning support into the physical workplace and captures people’s interactions with physical artefacts inviting them to share their experiences with them.
  • All three interaction layers draw on a common Social Semantic Layer that ensures learning is embedded in a meaningful context. This layer captures and emerges the shared understanding in the community of learners by supporting the negotiation of meaning. To achieve this, the social semantic layer captures a number of models and lets the community evolve these models through PLEs in a social negotiation process.

The following scenario within the building and construction industry illustrate how these technologies will be operational in the regional North West German building and construction cluster.

11. Building and Construction Scenario: Cross-organisational Learning for Sustainable Construction

A regional training provider for the building industry offers courses on how to install PLC (programmable logic control) based lighting systems, a new technology designed for more efficient energy consumption. Veronika, a vocational trainer at a regional branch, designs a course on PLC based systems where she provides electronic materials. In the course, she distributes QR tags which participants can stick on devices in order to receive information on demand. She also integrates work-based exercises in her teaching where users tag PLC systems with QR tags, take pictures or create short videos, and add their personal experiences with these systems that they make available for other people as learning experiences [Artefact Interaction Layer].

Paul is a skilled electrician working in craft trade electrician service company who has not used PLC technology before. The PLC installation instructions are difficult to understand for him because he lacks experience with such installations. He scans the QR tag attached to the PLC with his tablet PC. The system suggests course materials from Veronika’s course, relevant standards for the installation from a technical publisher, as well as a short video documenting the installation steps recorded by a colleague [Artefact Interaction Layer]. Moreover, Paul receives the information that two people have experience with this particular PLC [Social Semantic Layer]. Paul calls one of them over Skype and checks that his plan and understanding of the installation is sound and then proceeds with the installation with the help of the video. As several further questions remain, Paul posts them using voice recording and photo to a Q&A tool [People Interaction Layer].

Paul’s question is forwarded to Dieter, an Electrical “Meister” in another SME using similar devices, based on his user profile indicating that he has experience with PLC, and because he has indicated his willingness to help. Dieter briefly answers Paul’s question, including links to materials (Pictures, …) available in the learning layers repository. Dieter is a well-known “problem solver” in his SME network. By support of the Learning Layers technology he has created a training business in which he gives technical advice service and trainings to other building electrician companies. His comments can be traced by others and recognized as service from the Electrician’s Guild.

Veronika, the vocational trainer, is notified by the system that there are currently many new activities around PLC programming and views the concrete questions that occurred [Social Semantic Layer]. With the notification, she also gets recommendations for the most active and helpful discussions and for most suitable and high quality materials people have suggested [Learning Materials Interaction Layer]. She decides to include these in her course to illustrate solutions to potential problems.

The four layers described in the previous section provide the core of the conceptual and technological approach for the development of the PLEs. There are two further critical elements that will be crucial for reaching our vision. These elements are needed for effectively integrating the different layers.

12. Further Research 

Integration of work practices with learning to support situated, just-in time learning

We need further investigation into the relationship of informal learning and workplace practices on the individual, organisational and on the network level. In extending previous work, we will especially focus on physical workplaces and the opportunities and constraints that come with supporting learning. Secondly, we require a further focus on existing barriers and opportunities for scaling peer production and learning in cooperative-competitive SME networks. This work will create a model for scaling informal learning in a networked SME context and ensure that the use of tools is integrated through practice as suggested for example by Wenger, et al. (2009). But we generally acknowledge that a key factor for enterprises to staying agile and adaptive is to have a highly skilled workforce. With the rapid development of new technologies, staying up-to-date with know-how and skills increasingly becomes a challenge in many sectors.

Integration through a technical architecture for fast and flexible deployment:

Our idea is to base PLes on mobile devices, either the users’ personal devices or devices provided by the enterprises. However,  the Learning Layers concept is based on fast and flexible deployment in a networked SME setting with heterogeneous infrastructural requirements and conditions. Current learning architectures are typically deployed as monolithic in-house installations that lack flexibility for inter-SME networking in response to fast-changing environments. On the other hand, externally hosted solutions are too restricted to features, devices and environments supported by the provider, again impeding flexibility and fast development cycles. Thus, the challenge of both fast and flexible development and deployment of learning solutions is currently not optimally catered for. This issue requires further research and development.

13. First Conclusions

This paper presents the early stages of research and development towards producing a system to support Personal Learning Environments in the workplace. There remains much work to do in realising our vision. We are attempting both to theoretically bring together approaches to innovation and knowledge management with learning and at the same time to develop pedagogical approaches to scaffolding learning in the workplace and develop technologies which can support the use of PLEs in networked organisational settings.

Our ambition is not merely to produce a proof of concept but to roll out a scalable system which can support learning in large scale networks of SMEs.

Our approach to developing the use of PLEs is based on a series of layers to support informal interactions with people across enterprises, supports creation, maturing and interaction with learning materials as boundary objects and a layer that situates and scaffolds learning support into the physical workplace and captures people’s interactions with physical artefacts inviting them to share their experiences.


The authors wish to acknowledge the contribution of the partners in the Learning Layers project application, on whose work this paper draws heavily.


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